Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Forest of Enchantments – A #Review

Mythology tells timeless tales. Which is perhaps why, we never tire of listening to these stories from our childhood. Or perhaps the charm lies in the voice of the storyteller who brings something new, something unexpected to the tale; a new perspective perhaps or a poetic narration – something that makes the same old story fresh and exciting.

That’s why Chitra Banerjee’s The Forest of Enchantments was a book I was really looking forward to. It made me break my no-book-buying resolve within a few days of making it. Oh well!

The story 

…. of Sita is not new – found as an infant by the king of Mithila she is married off to Ram, the charismatic scion of the Raghu clan. When Ram is banished to fourteen years of exile she decides to accompany him, is abducted by the powerful Asura King Ravan only to be rescued by Ram. Barely has she settled down in the palace when she is banished, once again to the forest, this time by Ram himself for imagined infidelity. Finally, broken and hurt she finds refuge within mother earth.

Divakaruni’s Sita

…is my Sita too. She was closest to the one I’d always imagined and loved.

I loved that Sita chooses to tell her own story. Valmiki’s version wouldn’t do for her. How could he, a mere man, be equipped to understand a woman, divine guidance notwithstanding? So this here is the Sitayan.

Divakaruni crafts Sita’s character with care – her traits and her strengths complement her origin. Daughter of the earth, she understands all things that come from the earth. She has a green thumb, she can heal through herbs, she talks to the trees, she feels their pain, she craves the forest. Divakaruni’s pen brings to life Sita’s love in beautifully flowing prose, making one fall in love with the world as she sees it – free and unrestrained.

Sita is taught to use her body like a weapon, to centre her whole being and withdraw into herself when situations around her became unbearable.

Her natural gifts coupled with learned skills make her, to me, the perfect woman. One with silent strength and quiet courage, in Divakaruni’s words, ‘easy to mistake for meekness’; Sita has the courage of endurance.

On Love

Ramayan, as also Sitayan is definitely Sita and Ram’s love story. However, beyond that, The Forest of Enchantments is a treatise on love. Every action, good or bad, stems from love and its myriad shades – joy, ecstasy, expectation, pain, suffering, even death. Divakaruni gets elegantly lyrical as she enumerates how each action, each emotion finally finds its root in love. And every single quote is worth being read over and over again.

My absolute favourite is the one on Kaikeyi

It’s not enough to merely love someone…. we must want what they want, not what we want for them.

And this one from when she isn’t able to tell Ram how desperately she wants children during the banishment.

That’s how love stops us when it might be healthier to speak out, to not let frustration and rage build up until it explodes.

I know I’m overdoing this but just one more..

How entangled love is with expectation, that poison vine!

The other characters

..are beautifully etched too. Ram, the duty bound Raghuvanshi, Kaikeyi – strong and stubborn, Urmila – happy, effervescent as also Ravan, Shurpanakha, Mandodari, Sarama (Vibhishan’s wife), Ahalya (my favourite) and Shabari – they were all just right.

I would have liked to see a softer side to Lakshman. He seems forever angry and suspicious. Ram is his whole world, to the exclusion of everyone else. I sorely missed the warmth of his relationship with Sita.

But I’ll let that go, there is only so much one can do while cramming an epic into a few hundred pages.

The ending

…needs special mention because it is absolutely magnificent. Sita’s last few lines completely satisfied the feminist in me, without being angry or aggressive or loud. You need to read it to get what I’m saying.

The few bits that missed the mark

I loved Sita, I’ve made that pretty clear. That said, there were parts of her character that didn’t come together. One, she seemed overly empathetic, unnaturally so – even with Ravan and Shurpanakha. She is constantly thinking from multiple points of view even in the most dire circumstance. I get that she’s a divine, evolved soul but in her human form, it didn’t ring true.

Yet at places what she feels and says doesn’t tie in with her divinity. When she thinks of dying in the Ashok Vatika one of her thoughts is,
‘I wouldn’t be able to tell him how I’d suffered and how all through that suffering had remained true to him.’ Only too human!

I’m being too demanding, I know. The balance between the divine and mortal is difficult not to say subjective.

There were also bits of writing that didn’t quite come through. The abduction scene, for instance, didn’t turn out to be as dramatically horrifying as I thought it should have been.
Says Sita ‘My nails raised welts on his dark smooth skin…’. No one would note her captor’s ‘smooth’ skin while being abducted.
Also, when Sita sees the Pushpak Viman, she says, and I quote..
‘I was so amazed, I couldn’t help staring in open-mouthed wonder. For a moment, I even forgot to struggle.
‘You might want to close your lips’, the rakshasa (Ravan) said kindly (?). ‘A bug might wander in.’
The humour detracted from the horror of the situation.

And yet, despite the few hiccups I’ll say this is the best retelling of the Ramayan I’ve read. The one that reminded me of my grandma’s stories only in a more colourful, more fresh, ever more engrossing form.

Last Thought: Buy it.

Click on the image to buy the book.

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The Bodyguard – A #Review

Book Title: The Bodyguard
Author: Ruchi Singh

I was eager to pick this one up as I had read Jugnu, by the same author and loved it. The premise was deliciously different and the cover was enticing. What’s not to like with a brave strong heroine and a rich handsome hero in a sort of role-reversal? That’s what caught my interest. I thought this would make for a wonderful romantic read. And I wasn’t disappointed. That there was a mystery element thrown in made it even better.

The Story

Major Esha Sinha, an ex-army officer is hired as an undercover agent for Vikramaditya Seth Jr. Things take a serious turn when repeated attempts are made on his life. Esha struggles to ignore their mutual attraction in order to focus on the killer who is out to get Vikram.

What I loved

I started out thinking it was a romantic novel, however few pages down the line I realised it was more of a suspense thriller and, to me, that was a plus.

The characters come to life early on. I loved Major Esha – strong, silent, somewhat brooding with a bit of a mysterious past – the classic Mills and Boon hero. Flirtatious, egoistic, workaholic Vikram was a delight too. There were a host of other supporting characters, all etched out with care.

The writing was fast paced and there never was a dull moment. The story moved ahead with every page as new bits of information were revealed.

I loved that we got glimpses of the assassin’s life, a little peek into his head, just enough to spike ones interest and keep one guessing.

What could have been better

On the flip side, the suspense could have been tighter. There were a number of suspects, which was good, but they were rejected without really convincing reasons. Also, although I loved Major Esha’s character, she slips in her line of duty – her charge gets hit (twice) in her presence by the same person and she fails to protect him. That didn’t quite fit in with her character as the super-efficient bodyguard that I wanted her to be.

The end seemed rather hurried with Esha figuring things out pretty fast. Also, there were a few lose ends that needed to be tied up but were left dangling.

Oh and there were editing errors, more than a few. Avoiding those could have added quality to the book.

Last thought: A decent travel companion.

I was given a copy of the book by the author through Write Tribe in exchange for an honest review.

The Restaurant of Love Regained #BookReview

Book Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Author: Ito Ogava
Translated by: David Karashima

I bought this one off Amazon despite my self-imposed book ban, in a paperback edition despite struggling with shelf space. That’s how much I wanted to like this book. The premise is absolutely enchanting.

The story

Rinko comes home one day from her job at a restaurant to find that her boyfriend has walked out on her. As he goes he empties out their shared home including all her possessions as well as her life savings, which they were putting together to start a place of their own.

In shock, Rinko loses her voice. She decides to go home to her mother. The two have never got along but she has little choice now. She discovers  her mom has replaced her with a pig, Hermes, whom she loves more than she ever loved Rinko. With a loan from her mom and help from a childhood friend, Rinko starts a small restaurant. She calls it The Snail and serves only one exclusive customer a day. Her restaurant becomes successful and her food is believed to have magical qualities. Thereafter certain events occur and secrets come tumbling out that impact not just her restaurant, but also her relationship with her mom.

What I thought

Fiction centred on food is absolute comfort read for me. The Restaurant of Love Regained promised exactly that. Though the book begins on a melancholic note, it brightens up soon enough. It was delightful to follow Rinko as she set up her restaurant. I loved how things came together. The quaint door, the yellow orange walls, the handmade chandelier, the large old wood table, the hand sewn table covers, the thick rug and even a futon for someone who wants a post-meal nap. It was a dream.

Although built on a budget it seemed warm, spacious, elegant and cosy all at the same time.

Then there’s Rinko’s love for food. It comes shining through on every page. She has an endearing sense of pride in her cooking. When Hermes refuses to eat bread baked by her she is bothered and she experiments with ingredients to come up with something he likes.

It was disheartening to see something I’d made being left uneaten. The fact that the disgruntled customer was a pig didn’t help either.

I loved her dedication and her commitment to all things fresh and local. She treks through mountains and climbs trees to get to the best fruits and vegetables. She picks wild mushrooms and creates magic out of them. She plants herbs and watches them grow. She marinates and mixes, roasts and fries, stirs and sautés to cook up amazing creations.

What I didn’t like

I don’t want to put in spoilers but something happens towards the last bit of the book that completely spoilt it for me. Let me just say that if you do not like graphic descriptions of meat, stay away from this one. It is gory and insensitive and absolutely turned my stomach.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing or perhaps it was just me. I have been a vegetarian for over a decade, however, everyone around me is not and I’m okay with dinner-table conversations that discuss meat but this was something way beyond that.

I skipped through almost the last fifty pages which would otherwise have been poignant and sweet, filled with reconciliations and tender moments.

Last Thought: I leave you to make up your own mind about this one.

Last Train to Istanbul #Review

Book Title: Last Train to Istanbul
Author: Ayse Kulin
Translated from Turkish by: John W. Baker

Stories of the second World War hold a very special place in the hearts of most bibliophiles. These are stories of heartbreak, of atrocities and of cruelty beyond imagination and also stories of friendship and love and bravery beyond reason.

If like me, WWII stories fascinate you, then The Last Train to Istanbul is a must read. Each time I stumble upon a book like this I realise just how many countries and how many lives were part of the War.

I had no idea Turkey was home to so many jews. Way back in 1492 Don Ferdinand, the King of Spain, commanded all Jews to leave the country (giving up all their material possessions) because they were considered non-believers. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey at that time, Beyazid II made them welcome in his country and that’s how a large number of them made it their home.

That’s just a side-story of course. But isn’t it interesting? The history of the Jews is so full of struggle. It’s amazing how they manage to pick themselves, and by sheer acumen, rise up again and again.

Getting on with the story..

The Last Train to Istanbul tells the story of two sisters Sabiha and Selva, daughters of a well-to-do Pasa in the Turkish Government. While Sabiha falls in love and marries a diplomat Macit, Selva falls for a Jew, Rafael Alfandari. The Jews had lived for centuries in Turkey, but marriages between the two communities were not accepted. In order to get away from parental disapproval Selva and Rafael move to Paris which is already home to a thriving community of Turkish Jews. When War arrives in France and the Nazis take over, Jewish families are no longer safe.

The Turkish government, then negotiates a safe passage for its people from Paris to Turkey, to get as many of them as possible on that last  train to Istanbul. In doing so it saves not just Turkish Jews but as many people as it possible could.

What I loved

Most of the WWII stories I’ve read have had to do with the lives of ordinary people – how they hid from the Nazis or survived the concentration camps. I had little idea of what went on in the diplomatic circles. The Last Train to Istanbul gives a glimpse of talks and negotiations across the table through Macit’s eyes, who is a high-ranking diplomat.

What a delicate line it must have been for neutral counties to tread! In the end of course no one remained neutral but there were countries like Turkey that only wanted to save their people Jews or not, without giving in either to all-powerful Germany or to Britain and Russia; countries which did not have a big enough army yet did not want to the compromise their freedom.

The political intrigue is wrapped up with Sabiha and Selava’s individual stories and that made it more interesting.

I loved the early bits in the book about life in Turkey. Come to think of it, Turkey is a rather unique country positioned as it is between Asia and Europe. It mixes up a variety of cultures to come up with something quite its own.

The book also tells stories of people like David, a carefree young man who steps out for an evening with his friends only to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to camp. There’s Siegfried a brilliant scientist who disguises himself to escape the Germans and there’s Ferit an active member of the secret service that helps the Jews.

What could have been better

Sabiha suffers from depression and there’s a whole episode with her psychologist that I thought was completely irrelevant to the story.

Also, the final train journey turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. While I did understand the danger the people were in as they passed through Germany from right under the noses of the Nazis, much of it was built up without help from the author, simply because I had so much WWII background. The book itself threw up few surprises and the climax was not developed at all leaving me disappointed.

Yet, I will say, this is a book that should be read.

Last Thought: A must read for behind-the-scenes intrigue that goes on between world leaders during war.

To buy the book click the image below.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy the book on Amazon through this link, I will get a referral fee, at no additional cost to you.

How I Became a Farmer’s Wife #Review

Book Title: How I Became a Farmer’s Wife
Author: Yashodhara Lal

Fictionalised memoirs are definitely Yashodhara Lal’s forte. After her debut book Just Married Please Excuse, we meet her again, along with her husband Vijay and the triple bonus of her three kids.

The story

Vijay, an engineer with a full-time job, decides to take up farming. We follow his story as he struggles to set up his farm right from planting vegetables (because he loves the idea of apne khet ki gobhi), to buying cows, and handling the motley crew that makes up the help. The farm hiccups along solely on Vijay’s passion and his determination to realise a dream. It is hard work, full of hreatbreak and yet comes with immeasurable rewards.

What I loved

Lal handles the story with her characteristic humour. It isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious (like her first) but it still is a fun read. Her writing is realistic, too realistic sometimes. The first few pages that described the chaos with the children, were so close to the truth, like a mirror to my own anarchic home, that I felt my blood pressure rise and almost put away the book in fright.

However, there are plenty of good bits too.

She weaves in a host of characters, good, bad and ugly. The wily Shukla ji, the endearing Mobeen and his family, Akshata the yoga teacher (I want one like her) as also the familiar Kajal didi. The story of the farm is interwoven with her own internal complexes and struggles as well as tales of grappling with a pair of twins and a fast-growing tween.

My biggest takeaway from the book was that it never is easy to step out of one’s comfort zone but that is exactly what one has to do if one wants to follow a dream. I loved Vijay’s doggedness and I have to hand it to him for the ploughing on ahead (pun intended) despite the thousand set-backs.

Also, as a mom, the book reminded me that children are more than willing to give up their gadgets if we show them the fun they can have outdoors. I loved how Peanut, Pickle and Papad connected with the farm and farm animals.

What could have been better

On the flip side the book gets tiresome in parts, the struggles too many and too long and I’m not just talking about the farm. Pickle and Papad seem too hung up on technology and Peanut is in a whole different world – they all are kind of scattered and disconnected. I didn’t get as much of a warm family vibe as I expected from the book. So that was a bit of a disappointment.

A little more humour might have done the trick, or maybe a greater focus on what kept the family together during those crazy days. But then maybe that’s all meant to happen in Madhya Pradesh.

Last thought: Pick it up if you’re looking for a fun slice-of-life read.

The Liberation of Sita – #Review

Book Title: The Liberation of Sita
Author: Volga

The Liberation of Sita is a collection of four short stories picked from Sita’s life. I’d like to say these are imaginary interactions but then this is mythology and real and imaginary aren’t really pertinent. It is all about how the story is told. This here is a whole new take.

In Volga’s stories Sita meets Surpanaka, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila – all powerful women from the Ramayan, all wronged by men in different ways, often in the name of dharma, always as a result of patriarchy.

Sita meets them during the course of her sojourn in the jungles, where she spent most of her life.

When she hears her sons Luv and Kush talking about an ugly woman (with no nose and ears) who has a beautiful garden in the forest, she knows it is Surpanakha. She wonders in regret if Ram and Lakshman would have done the same had Surpanakha not been who she was, had they not wanted to provoke Ravana. She goes to meet the demon princess who raises questions on the identity of women, ‘Do women exist only to be used by men to settle they scores?’ she asks.

Then there is Ahalya who refuses to give anyone the right to judge her. ‘Never agree to a trial Sita’, she advises her for trust does not need proof.

There’s Renuka, whose son, Parashuram chopped off her head when her husband, suspected her of infidelity. She tells Sita to free herself from her husband and sons. ‘A woman thinks giving birth to sons is the ultimate goal of her life… but one day they begin to legislate our lives. Why bear such sons?’

Lastly there’s Urmila who shuts herself up after Lakshman leaves to accompany Ram and Sita to the forest. Not in loneliness, she says but in solitude. And in solitude she launches on a journey of self discovery.

These are women who refuse to wallow in self-pity or shed tears for men (or society) who have ostracised them. They choose to remain strong, to give up their families – husband and sons – to not bow down to the expectations of a patriarchal society. Instead they carve out a life of their own choosing and inspire Sita to do the same.

This is a powerful book, although the language isn’t perfect – some bit of it is bound to get lost in translation. However just this once, I was willing to overlook all of that. To truly enjoy this book you need to be familiar with some bit of Indian Mythology. If you do have that background this is a perfect read. The original work in Telugu, must have been better. Even the translation very effectively manages to say what it has to, and so remains a book that must be read.

Last Thought: A must read for those familiar with Indian Mythology, specifically the Ramayan.

 

 

 

A Spot of Bother #Review

Book Title: A Spot of Bother
Author: Mark Haddon

First things first – this Haddon book is nothing like the first one – The Curious Case of a Dog in the Nighttime (which you must read if you haven’t already). I needed to get that out of the way because if you go into it thinking about that one, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. That said, this is a decent enough read.

The story

It tells the story of 57-year-old George Hall and his family. George is a hypochondriac. He is plagued with a spot of eczema and he decides right away that it is life threatening. Meanwhile his wife is having an affair, his daughter Katie, (who has a son from a first marriage) is set to marry a man who the entire family dislikes because he just isn’t classy enough. His son Jamie is gay but he doesn’t want to come out to his family just yet. He is in the middle of a tiff with his boyfriend because Jamie is reluctant to get him to the wedding.

The Review

Haddon has the uncanny ability of getting into the minds of people who are different. He writes about them with amazing clarity. That’s what makes his stories interesting. Because Haddon’s characters are not ‘normal’ – an autistic teen or a hypochondriac, in this case – their worldview is a difficult to comprehend and that’s what makes his books refreshing. During the course of the story one needs to pull oneself out of the narrative periodically, to try to NOT feel like the character in order to understand the character because what he is saying or thinking may not be reliable from what we consider a normal perspective.

Does that make sense?

That’s what I loved about A Spot of Bother. Also the fact that it tells the story from multiple perspectives with George’s being the main voice. The  host of characters, each with their own quirks, their own stories and their own relationships give the book a sweeping family saga kind of feel. Many times through the book you re-evaluate people, change your mind about them, grow to like them or dislike them through the pages.

The narrative flags in bits but the end made up for everything. It left me with a warm feeling and a smile on my face.

Last thought: This one is meant to be read over a vacation at leisure. Don’t be in a hurry to get through it and you might enjoy it.